The Tangled History of President’s Day

On the third Monday in February, the entire nation celebrates President’s Day … sort of. While the holiday is known colloquially as President’s Day, its official federal name is still Washington’s Birthday. If that wasn’t confusing enough, different states officially know it as “President’s Day,” “Lincoln/Washington/President’s Day,” “Washington-Lincoln Day,” “George Washington Day,” and more. Let’s untangle how all these variant names came about and delve into the fascinating history of the holiday.

Washington was born on February 22, 1731. Given his incredible contribution to the founding of the United States, it’s understandable that a national holiday would be established to commemorate his legacy. The holiday was first established in 1879 for employees in Washington, D.C. Six years later, it was expanded to include all federal offices nationwide. And for the next century or so, nothing changed.

However, in 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This bill officially moved holidays that were once celebrated on specific dates, like Memorial Day and Columbus Day, to a particular Monday in a given month. This allowed for three-day weekends and, hopefully, encouraged retail sales with an extra day of shopping. But this, unintentionally, moved Washington’s birthday celebration to a day between his actual birthday and the birthday of another venerated president, Abraham Lincoln.

By the late 20th century, Lincoln’s reputation and legacy were as titanic as Washington’s. Because Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809,  any states found it appropriate to make the day a commemoration of two great presidents rather than just one. By the 1980s, “President’s Day” was the more widely acknowledged name, if not the official designation.

Why it hasn’t received a uniform federal name is anyone’s guess, but at least when you say “President’s Day,” everyone knows what you’re talking about. No matter what you call it, the day is a chance to celebrate some of the people who’ve made lasting contributions to our nation’s history. If you look at any presidential ranking, Washington and Lincoln are probably No. 1 and No. 2. It’s fitting, then, that we celebrate their birthdays in tandem.

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